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Black & White in Colour Theory
plus a History of the Colour Black in Art

Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out that there are grey sunglasses that reduce colour but no whitening glasses to make images brighter.  Another of his thoughts was that we can objectively measure many things such as length with a ruler.  But what does one quantify 'redness' ?  And what do we do with Purple and Brown?  Can we call them colours if they are not seen in the visible spectrum?  (See the book references at the end of this page.)
    Jonathan Westphal took Wittgenstein's observations as a starting point and began to realise that Black and White were seen by people to have opaque qualities.  Colour was a transparent or luminous quality added to them.  Thus Yellow or Orange can catch the eye and appear brighter than White even though they must of necessity be duller because they are only a part of the full spectrum that makes up white light.  'Redness' can be measured but requires a three dimensional outlook that Wittgenstein did not investigate.
    Still others failed to separate the concept of 'Primary Colour' from 'Spectral Colour' and/or the colour receptors in the eye.  They did not see the spectrum as a continuum of discrete wavelengths.  They thought that the spectrum was the interaction of three broad primary colours naturally present in nature rather than these primaries being a result of the internal functioning of the eye.
    The spectrum is a linear display of colours, but the full range of visible colours requires a three dimensional colour space for full representation.  Also, remember from the 'Zero section' that there is a very real subjective component to colour.  Therefore, purple and brown are colours because there is a historic name associated with them (i.e. they are perceived to be distinct).
3-D Colour Space     Finally, most colour systems require a Black-to-White scale to complete its three dimensional aspect.  The Munsell system calls it "Value".  The L*a*b meter gives a "Luminance or "Lightness" reading.  The HSB system defines a "Brightness" in addition to Hue and Saturation.

This diagram shows how visual colour perception can be represented by a three dimensional image that includes a Black-to-White axis.  (See also the L*a*b section and the attendant L*a*b Diagram.)

History of Black in Painting

Some competing traditions in art, such as Classicism versus Romanticism, are well documented.  Less well known is that Black could be in or out of fashion.
-- Romans used black paint to model portraits (which made the faces look dirty).
-- Medieval painters did not use Black for colour mixing.  Instead, they used the darkest  shade of pure colour available as the contour shadow area and lightened the colour with white as the contour was brightened by the light source.  Without a wide variety of pigments available, the Value scales were uneven.  This made some colours look too bright and almost cartoonish.
-- Renaissance painters had the new invention of oil painting to give a luminous quality to colour.  The blacks could be rich and dark rather than flat and pasty.
-- Impressionist painters were philosophically opposed to black since it was not considered a colour by them (but not necessarily excluded in practice).  Academic painting had been debased by rigid rules surrounding subject matter.  The Impressionists wanted to paint real life and real sensations of colour and light.  Brown varnish and Black were banished because they reflected the Academic tradition.
-- Abstract Expressionists saw that solid black had the boldness and solidity that they needed to transfix their statement onto the canvas.
-- Modern practice is to minimize the use of Black.  Complementary colours are used in mixtures to dull a colour towards grey.

Book References

"Remarks on Colour" Ludwig Wittgenstein; University of California Press.   ISBN-0-520-03727-8

"Colour; A Philosophical Introduction" Jonathan Westphal, 1987; Oxford Press/Basil Blackwell Inc.   ISBN-0-631-17934-8

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